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Who Runs in the Dark?

This Friday, the Partnership Schools’ teachers, operations teams, principals and network staff gathered to reflect and to pray over the extraordinary months of this spring. The following is excerpted from the reflection shared at the gathering by Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent, about the apostles, The Great Gatsby, and us.

For the past 77 days, since March 13th, we’ve all been locked away in quarantine. Since this time has overlapped with Lent and the Easter season, which ends this weekend with Pentecost, it can be interesting to reflect on our last few months of isolation in relation to the first disciples’ experience in the locked upper room in the days after the crucifixion. They had just experienced something that changed their world–shook its foundations, really–and so they gathered together, locked themselves away in a state of fear and anxiety, and waited for an “all-clear” to enter into a world unlike the one they had left when they entered the room.

We know that the Resurrection and then Pentecost changed everything for those disciples, and still changes everything for us. Today I’d like to share a story from John’s Gospel and talk a little about one of the characters in the scripture, along with a literary image, to help us linger a bit with the disciples in that locked room and on the moment when they got that “all-clear.”  We’ll use this moment at the tomb and in the locked room to help us look back on our recent past, especially the last 77 days, on what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished, and how we’ve seen God’s presence alive in our work, in our colleagues and school community, in our students, and in our life. We’ll also look ahead, to consider what life beyond our locked upper rooms will look like. Where will we find God in our life and work when we all emerge? How will we use the experience of these 77 days as an opportunity to renew our zeal for our work, our relationships, and our faith?

In John’s Gospel, on Easter Sunday, we are told, “It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and so she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’ she said ‘and we don’t know where they have put him.’ So Peter set out with the disciple Jesus loved to go to the tomb. They ran together but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first; he bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but did not go in. Simon Peter who was following now came up, went right into the tomb, saw the linen cloths on the ground…then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed.”

“The disciple Jesus loved” –I find this beloved disciple to be a fascinating character in the Gospels. He or she–some speculate that the disciple could be Mary Magdalene–only appears five times, all in John’s Gospels. Some think that John the Evangelist is actually referring to himself when he describes the disciple Jesus loved. But John deliberately never names this disciple, so I think we can take that intentional anonymity as an invitation to imagine ourselves into that character.

If we look at the five times the character appears, we see that John has a clear purpose for this disciple: He shows us what it takes to be loved by Jesus. This disciple first appears at the Last Supper, where he is depicted as reclining “close to Jesus’ heart.” John uses the same phrase here that he used in the first chapter of his Gospel to describe the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. He’s showing HOW close a disciple can be to Christ – we can be as close to Christ as Christ is to his Father.

Next, the disciple accompanies Jesus into the high priest’s chambers while Peter goes into the courtyard. As the future first Pope denies Christ three times, the beloved disciple is shown as a point of loyal contrast.

Next, the beloved disciple is seen at the foot of the cross, loyal to Mary all the way to the moment of Christ’s death.

On Easter Sunday, the beloved disciple races and beats Peter to the tomb, and becomes the first believer in the resurrected Christ.

A few days later, Christ appears to the disciples while they are fishing, and while Peter doesn’t recognize Jesus, the beloved disciple does.

Faith, loyalty, zeal, staying close to Christ’s heart–and always in contrast to to stubborn, clumsy Peter–the beloved disciple provides a stand-in that we can aspire to. Peter may be who we are; the beloved disciple is who we long to be.

I am also struck in this Easter narrative by all the running around in the dark. “Very early and still dark…Mary came running…Peter and the other disciple ran together, the other ran faster…” Look at the other three resurrection accounts and, sure enough, each of them involves disciples zipping around in the dark. A friend and former colleague, Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, preached on Easter Sunday about this, answering the question, “Who runs in the dark? People who have spent time with Jesus Christ.” People with hope.

All the running reminds me of the last passage of one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby.

In a lot of ways I think Gatsby is the great American novel.  Its main character is the son of immigrants who epitomizes the American dream, striving for success at all costs.  He looks out over the bay at a green light in the distance, which represents the perfect life that is just out of reach. One of the key insights of the novel is that the light remains out of reach even when Gatsby is rich beyond his wildest dreams.

The last passage is haunting. It reads:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–

Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This is pretty depressing, right? The narrator tells us we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, that our green lights are always going to be just out of reach. But in the middle of this passage of despair, there is a beautifully hope-filled clause: in spite of it all, “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…”. Tomorrow, we will not give up. There remains hope of “one fine morning” when our green light will be within reach.

And so we beat on.

Because we are not the Great Gatsby. We can read this passage with hope because we are more like the beloved disciple than we are like Jay Gatsby.

The difference between the beloved disciple–us, really–and Gatsby, is that we strive for something truly meaningful. We aren’t working our tails off and staying up late at night so that we can attend swanky parties or drive fancy cars or get caught up in the glamorous affairs of the wealthy.  Our green light is not a boat, or a car, or anything that can be possessed.

Our green light lies just behind the eyes of the children we teach.  The beloved disciple’s green light was to be close to the heart of Christ. Our aspirations are to help our students be close to the heart of Christ, by ensuring that they flourish in this life and the next.

The other important difference between us and Gatsby is that when our green light seems out of reach, we have ways to renew our zeal. Gatsby had vices and, when those failed, just desolation. We have prayer. We have friends and communities. We can be “beloved disciples” for each other, and we, in turn, rely on others to be beloved disciples for us.

And so we find strength to continue to beat on against that shore because the resurrection gives us confidence that our work builds the kingdom of Christ. Because we are beloved by Christ, our zeal is not a hollow fervor that ends in tragedy–spoiler alert: The Great Gatsby doesn’t end well for the ol’ sport–but instead our zeal is the same zeal that filled the disciples at Pentecost, when they were inspired to speak to thousands in their own languages, and then drop their livelihoods and run to the far corners of the world to spread the Gospel so effectively that we are still talking about it today. It’s a zeal that inspires us to burst out of our locked upper rooms to run fast into the dark, with fierce and confident hope that the stone has been rolled away.